Yes, it's true. We're not so much into animal sacrifice these days. So, why do we keep reading about it? What can it teach us today? Why would we consider it as a thing to hang our prayer hats on? It's surely much nicer to think of Yitzhak in the field, so aglow that Rivka falls off her camel at the sight. Who wouldn't rather think of the chance to have such a remarkable dream as Ya'akov had in The Place that night? Just what is it about sacrifice?
At this point, I'd like to return to the translation of the text from BaMidbar (Numbers) 28, that serves our "proof text" for this angle of thrice-daily Tefillah. "Be mindful to make the offerings to me in their time - my offerings of my food, made by fire, a pleasing odor to me." We'll take it bit by bit, and hope for some elucidation. First we have "The offering of my food." [את קרבני לחמי Et korbani lachmi] The word translated as offering - korban - comes from the root which means, most often, to draw near. So, here we have something intended to draw G8d near, or to draw us near to G8d, or both (yes, they are different). This offering, the thing brought to draw us and the Holy One of Blessing nearer to each other - is described as "my bread," [לחמי] which is a word whose meaning can be broadened to mean food in general. My food? G8d needs food? A strange thought, indeed.
The next part of this verse that bears a closer look is typically translated "made by fire, a pleasing odor to me" [ לאשי ריח ניחחי - L'ishai reiach nikhokhi] The word I take particular interest in here is "nikhokhi." This word comes from a root that implies comforting or settling. So, there is something about this nearness-creating comestible that is comforting or settling to our Source.
Why does it take the slaughter and burning of animals to comfort and settle our Comforter? The best answer I have come up with is this: G8d feeds upon that which is dear to us.
Now I can start in on some more whys and wherefores. First of all, why would G8d need to feed on anything, much less things that are dear to us hear on Earth? For me, this has to do with relationship. In this context, we can look at it as the flow of energy that exists between ourselves and the Source of All Blessing. Whatever we put into the G8d-field has the potential of coming back to our realm in an ongoing positive energy exchange. Energy sources need an in-flow and out out-flow. Imagine a relationship in which all you did was give - out-flow. That would surely lead to an unsettled state. All relationships involve give and take, yes?
There is also the element of fire. Fire is a strange and powerful thing. Transformative. Life-giving. Life-taking. Trance-inducing. In Greek mythology, fire is reserved for the gods, and Prometheus is punished eternally for giving fire back to humankind. We can see and feel fire. We can even touch it for fleeting moments (ever pass your finger through a candle's flame when you were a kid?). Fire has the power to transform objects, living beings, into smoke that rises and disappears into the air, joining with the formless Presence all around us.
Fire is the element, to which we have access, which has the strongest potential for immediate transformation. It would seem that G8d feeds on the transformation of that which we hold dear. Before the establishment of the priestly cult of temple sacrifices, G8d put a stop, through Avraham’s trial, to human sacrifice. We can glean from the story of the Akedah that sacrifice of one’s child was likely an accepted and normal occurrence, horrifying as that may sound to our modern ears. After all, if you want to know what was going on in a society, look its laws and strictures. This supposition can also tell us something about why Avraham doesn’t seem too surprised to receive such a request from G8d (the fact that many, MANY details of stories in Torah are not revealed, notwithstanding).
As we watch the progression of Avodah throughout the generations of the Jewish people, we can see that those things we are asked to sacrifice involve things that are dear to us, and have to do with our own lifeblood - a child: our own flesh and blood; a ram or bull: the progenitor of generations of potential food and trade value for the community from which it came. These tangible beings are transformed, through fire, into that upon which G8d can “feed”.
With the end of the priestly cult and animal sacrifice, we are left with the transformation of the thing very dearest to us - our own selves. How is this accomplished? Through the transforming fire of prayer. What is sacrificed? What is transformed?
When we go to G8d in sincere prayer, the first thing it means is that we are taking the time to do it. I can’t be sure what the giving of time to prayer felt like for the ancients, or even for those taking time out to pray even 100 years ago, but certainly in our time, taking time out of our busy lives can feel no less than excruciating. I’ll give you $100 before I give you 10 minutes of my precious time! So, our notions of time and the importance of the daily tasks we all face must be transformed. I have found, time and again, that when I make a decision to broaden my spiritual practice, whether it be through taking more time to pray and/or meditate, or to do some additional volunteer service, my experience of time is transformed. Somehow, time opens up like an infinitely expanding balloon, and there is a senseof spaciousness around my time that was not previously there.
The next thing that is transformed is our egos. If I go to G8d for guidance, I’d better expect that I may receive guidance that I don’t necessarily like at first glance. Sometimes, the answers I get affirm what I thought to be true. Sometimes, they really don’t. We’ve all heard the expression, “Be careful what you pray for.” As the Chasids said, “Your word is fire.” It will transform.
There's so much more to say on this, but I think I'll leave it here for now. Next time: Sacrifice as a teddy bear?